How Not To Talk About Race And Genetics

Race has long been a potent way of defining differences between human beings. But science and the categories it constructs do not operate in a political vacuum.

This open letter was produced by a group of 67 scientists and researchers. The full list of signatories can be found below.

In his newly published book Who We Are and How We Got Here, geneticist David Reich engages with the complex and often fraught intersections of genetics with our understandings of human differences — most prominently, race.

He admirably challenges misrepresentations about race and genetics made by the likes of former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade and Nobel Laureate James Watson. As an eminent scientist, Reich clearly has experience with the genetics side of this relationship. But his skillfulness with ancient and contemporary DNA should not be confused with a mastery of the cultural, political, and biological meanings of human groups.

As a group of 67 scholars from disciplines ranging across the natural sciences, medical and population health sciences, social sciences, law, and humanities, we would like to make it clear that Reich’s understanding of "race" — most recently in a Times column warning that “it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among ‘races’” — is seriously flawed.

For centuries, race has been used as potent category to determine how differences between human beings should and should not matter. But science and the categories it constructs do not operate in a political vacuum. Population groupings become meaningful to scientists in large part because of their social and political salience — including, importantly, their power to produce and enforce hierarchies of race, sex, and class.

Reich frames his argument by positing a straw man in the form of a purported orthodoxy that claims that “the average genetic differences among people grouped according to today's racial terms are so trivial when it comes to any meaningful biological traits that those differences can be ignored.” That orthodoxy, he says, “denies the possibility of substantial biological differences among human populations” and is “anxious about any research into genetic differences among populations.”

This misrepresents the many scientists and scholars who have demonstrated the scientific flaws of considering “race” a biological category. Their robust body of scholarship recognizes the existence of geographically based genetic variation in our species, but shows that such variation is not consistent with biological definitions of race. Nor does that variation map precisely onto ever changing socially defined racial groups.

Reich critically misunderstands and misrepresents concerns that are central to recent critiques of how biomedical researchers — including Reich — use categories of “race” and “population.”

For example, sickle cell anemia is a meaningful biological trait. In the US it is commonly (and mistakenly) identified as a “black” disease. In fact, while it does have a high prevalence in populations of people with West and Central African ancestry, it also has a high prevalence in populations from much of the Arabian Peninsula, and parts of the Mediterranean and India. This is because the genetic variant that causes sickle cell is more prevalent in people descended from parts of the world with a high incidence of malaria. “Race” has nothing to do with it. Thus, it is simply wrong to say that the higher prevalence of sickle cell trait in West African populations means that the racial category “black” is somehow genetic.

The same thing goes for the people descended from West African populations whom Reich examined in his work on prostate cancer. These people may have a higher frequency of a version of a particular gene that is linked to a higher risk of prostate cancer. But lots of people not from West Africa also have this same gene. We don’t call these other people a “race” or say their “race” is relevant to their condition. Finding a high prevalence of a particular genetic variant in a group does not make that group a “race.”

Human beings are 99.5% genetically identical. Of course, because the human genome has 3 billion base pairs, that means any given individual may differ from another at 15 million loci (.5% of 3 billion). Given random variation, you could genotype all Red Sox fans and all Yankees fans and find that one group has a statistically significant higher frequency of a number of particular genetic variants than the other group — perhaps even the same sort of variation that Reich found for the prostate cancer–related genes he studied. This does not mean that Red Sox fans and Yankees fans are genetically distinct races (though many might try to tell you they are).

In short, there is a difference between finding genetic differences between individuals and constructing genetic differences across groups by making conscious choices about which types of group matter for your purposes. These sorts of groups do not exist “in nature.” They are made by human choice. This is not to say that such groups have no biological attributes in common. Rather, it is to say that the meaning and significance of the groups is produced through social interventions.

In support of his argument for the biological relevance of race, Reich also writes about genetic differences between Northern and Southern Europeans. Again, this should not be an argument for the biological reality of race. Of course, we could go back to the early 20th century when many believed that the “industrious” Northern Teutons were a race distinct from the “slothful” Southern Europeans. Such thinking informed the creation of racially restrictive immigration laws in 1924, but we think even Reich would not consider this sort of thinking useful today.

Instead, we need to recognize that meaningful patterns of genetic and biological variation exist in our species that are not racial.

Reich’s claim that we need to prepare for genetic evidence of racial differences in behavior or health ignores the trajectory of modern genetics. For several decades billions of dollars have been spent trying to find such differences. The result has been a preponderance of negative findings despite intrepid efforts to collect DNA data on millions of individuals in the hope of finding even the tiniest signals of difference.

To challenge Reich’s claims is not, as he would have it, to stick our heads in the sand. It is to develop a more sophisticated approach to the problem of human group categorization in the biomedical sciences.

Precisely because the problems of race are complex, scientists need to engage these issues with greater care and sophistication. Geneticists should work in collaboration with their social science and humanities colleagues to make certain that their biomedical discoveries make a positive difference in health care, including the care of those studied.

This is not to say that geneticists such as Reich should never use categories in their research; indeed, their work would be largely impossible without them. However, they must be careful to understand the social and historical legacies that shape the formation of these categories, and constrain their utility.

Even "male" and "female," which Reich invokes as obviously biologically meaningful, has important limitations. While these categories help us to know and care for many human beings, they hinder our capacity to know and care for the millions of human beings born into this world not clearly "sexed.’ Further, overemphasizing the importance of the X and Y chromosomes in determining sex prevent us from seeing the other parts of the genome involved in sex.

While focusing on groups with a high incidence of a particular condition may help researchers identify genetic variants that might correlate to the condition, it must also be understood that all genetic contributions to physical traits, including disease, are always influenced by environmental factors.

For example, an ancestral gene may not have ever contributed to disease risk in its former environment, but now does when individuals carrying it are differentially exposed to harmful environments. This raises the question of whether it is more efficacious to remove the environmental insult or alter the individual’s physiology by medical intervention (or both).

Making claims about the existence of biological races won’t help answer questions about health, like how the health of racialized groups is harmed by racial discrimination — how it increases the risk of disease, the risk of exposure to environmental toxins, or the risk of inadequate and inappropriate health care.

This doesn’t mean that genetic variation is unimportant; it is, but it does not follow racial lines. History has taught us the many ways that studies of human genetic variation can be misunderstood and misinterpreted: if sampling practices and historical contexts are not considered; if little attention is given to how genes, environments, and social conditions interact; and if we ignore the ways that sociocultural categories and practices shape the genetic patterns themselves.

As scholars who engage with social and scientific research, we urge scientists to speak out when science is used inappropriately to make claims about human differences. The public should not cede the power to define race to scientists who themselves are not trained to understand the social contexts that shape the formation of this fraught category. Instead, we encourage geneticists to collaborate with their colleagues in the social sciences, humanities, and public health to consider more carefully how best to use racial categories in scientific research. Together, we can conduct research that will influence human lives positively.

Jonathan Kahn, James E. Kelley Professor of Law, Mitchell Hamline School of Law

Alondra Nelson, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies, Columbia University; President, Social Science Research Council

Joseph L. Graves Jr., Associate Dean for Research & Professor of Biological Sciences, Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Section G: Biological Sciences, Joint School of Nanoscience & Nanoengineering, North Carolina A&T State University, UNC Greensboro

Sarah Abel, Postdoc, Department of Anthropology, University of Iceland

Ruha Benjamin, Associate Professor, Department of African American Studies, Princeton University

Sarah Blacker, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin

Catherine Bliss, Associate Professor, Social and Behavioral Sciences, UC San Francisco

Lundy Braun, Professor of Medical Science and Africana Studies, Brown University

Khiara M. Bridges, Professor of Law, Professor of Anthropology, Boston University

Craig Calhoun, President of Berggruen Institute Centennial Professor, London School of Economics.

Claudia Chaufan, Associate Professor, York University Toronto

Nathaniel Comfort, Professor, Institute of the History of Medicine, The Johns Hopkins University

Richard Cone, Professor of Biophysics, Johns Hopkins University

Richard Cooper, Department of Public Health Sciences, Loyola University Medical School

Marcy Darnovsky, Executive Director, Center for Genetics and Society

Robert Desalle, Curator, Institute for Genomics, American Museum of Natural History

Troy Duster, Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley

Anne Fausto-Sterling, Professor of Biology Emerita, Brown University, Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

Agustin Fuentes, The Edmund P. Joyce C.S.C. Professor of Anthropology, University of Notre Dame

Joan H. Fujimura, Professor, Department of Sociology and Holtz Center for Research on Science, Technology, Medicine, and the Environment, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Stephanie Malia Fullerton, Associate Professor, Department of Bioethics & Humanities, University of Washington

Duana Fullwiley, Associate Professor of Medical Anthropology, Stanford University.

Omer Gokcumen, Assistant Professor, University at Buffalo

Alan Goodman, Professor of Biological Anthropology. Hampshire College

Monica H. Green, Professor of History, School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies, Arizona State University

Erika Hagelberg, Professor, Department of Biosciences, University of Oslo

Evelynn Hammonds, Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science, Harvard University

Helena Hansen, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Psychiatry, New York University

John Hartigan Jr., Professor of Anthropology, University of Texas, Austin.

Anthony Hatch, Associate Professor, Science in Society Program, Sociology, and African American Studies, Wesleyan University

Torsten Heinemann, Professor of Sociology and Chair of Technology and Diversity, RWTH Aachen University, Germany

Jay Kaufman, Canada Research Chair in Health Disparities and Professor of Epidemiology, McGill University.

Trica Keaton, Associate Professor, African and African American Studies, Dartmouth College

Terence Keel, Associate Professor, Department of Black Studies and Department of History, University of California, Santa Barbara

Nancy Krieger, Professor of Social Epidemiology, American Cancer Society Clinical Research Professor, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Sheldon Krimsky, Lenore Stern Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences, Tufts University

Jon Røyne Kyllingstad, Associate Professor of History, University of Oslo

Catherine Lee, Associate Professor of Sociology, Rutgers University

Ageliki Lefkaditou, Postdoctoral Researcher, Institute of Health and Society, University of Oslo

Sandra Soo-Jin Lee, Senior Research Scholar, Center for Biomedical Ethics, Stanford University

Jonathan Marks, Professor of Anthropology, UNC-Charlotte

Amade M’charek, Professor of the Anthropology of Science, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands

Michael Montoya, Associate Professor of Anthropology Emeritus, University of California, Irvine

Ann Morning, Associate Professor of Sociology, New York University

Osagie K. Obasogie, Haas Distinguished Chair and Professor of Bioethics, Joint Medical Program and School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley

Pilar N. Ossorio, Ph.D., JD, Professor of Law and Bioethics, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Tony Platt, Distinguished Affiliated Scholar, Center for the Study of Law & Society, UC Berkeley;

Robert Pollack, professor of Biological Sciences, Columbia University

Aaron Panofsky, Associate Professor, Institute for Society and Genetics, Public Policy, and Sociology, University of California, Los Angeles

Kimani Paul-Emile, Associate Professor, Fordham University School of Law

Ramya M. Rajagopalan, Research Scientist, Institute for Practical Ethics, University of California, San Diego

Rayna Rapp, Professor of Anthropology, New York University

Jenny Reardon, Professor of Sociology and Director, Science and Justice Research Center, University of California, Santa Cruz

Amos Morris-Reich, Professor of History, University of Haifa

Susan M. Reverby, McLean Professor Emerita in the History of Ideas and Professor Emerita of Women’s and Gender Studies, Wellesley College

Jennifer A. Richeson, Philip R. Allen Professor of Psychology, Yale University

Sarah S. Richardson, Professor of the History of Science and of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Director of Graduate Studies, WGS, Harvard University

Dorothy Roberts, George A. Weiss University Professor of Law, Sociology, and Africana Studies and Director, Penn Program on Race, Science, and Society, University of Pennsylvania

Wendy D. Roth, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of British Columbia

Charmaine DM Royal, Associate Professor, African & African American Studies, Biology, and Community & Family Medicine, Duke University

Danilyn Rutherford, President of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research

Janet K. Shim, Professor of Sociology, University of California, San Francisco

Karen-Sue Taussig, Chair and Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Minnesota

Charis Thompson, Chancellor’s Professor, UC Berkeley, and RQIF Professor, London School of Economics

France Winddance Twine, Professor of Sociology, University of California at Santa Barbara

Keith Wailoo, Henry Putnam University Professor of History and Public Affairs, Princeton University

Patricia J. Williams, James L. Dohr Professor of Law, Columbia University

Michael Yudell, Chair & Associate Professor, Dornsife School of Public Health, Drexel University

Skip to footer